Canada loses approximately $169 million annually in sales tax revenue, according to a recent report from the nation’s interim auditor general. These losses are the result of Canadians failing to pay taxes on digital purchases from foreign vendors. As a result, the auditor general’s office noted Canadians often pay more for domestic digital goods than their foreign counterparts.
Interim Auditor General Sylvain Ricard submitted a series of five performance audits to the Parliament of Canada on May 7. One of these audits focused on the taxation of e-commerce. The audit noted the rapid rise of e-commerce, particularly with respect to “digital products” for music and video, creates “challenges for assessing” the federal goods and services tax (GST) and the harmonized sales tax (HST).
Domestic sellers of digital goods and services are required to collect GST and HST from individual consumers and remit those payments to the government. But foreign vendors with no “permanent establishment” in Canada are not required to make such collections under federal law. This does not mean that foreign sales are exempt from taxation. Rather, if an individual consumer’s total purchases of foreign digital goods results in a GST or HST tax liability of more than $2, it is that consumer’s responsibility to fill out a form and pay the applicable tax.
In practice, most Canadian consumers simply ignore this duty. According to Ricard, while approximately two-thirds of Canadian adults “purchased digital products from both foreign and domestic vendors between July 2017 and June 2018,” only 524 people filed GST or HST forms on those purchases. And the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) only has “limited authority” to ensure compliance.
For instance, Ricard noted, while the United States government requires all payment processors to provide their financial data to the Internal Revenue Service, the CRA lacks a similar ability to collect such third-party information without first obtaining a court order. This, in turn, reduces the CRA’s ability to “detect and deter non-compliance.”
The costs of this non-compliance are not insignificant. Ricard’s office estimated the total GST losses for the 2017 fiscal year alone was $169 million. And given the increasing role of cross-border e-commerce in Canada’s economy, Ricard recommended the CRA “implement mechanisms to track, monitor, and report the number of compliance activities it conducts to manage the risk of non-compliance.”
But it may not be that simple. Enforcing sales tax collection on foreign digital goods, especially popular U.S.-based services like Netflix, is unpopular with Canadian politicians. During the 2015 federal election, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper released an ad saying his Conservative Party was “100 per cent against a Netflix tax,” according to a recent report in the Toronto Star. Harper’s rival, Liberal Party leader and current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, also came out against efforts to require Netflix and other non-Canadian vendors to collect the GST and HST.
Some Canadian provinces, however, are taking a harder line. The auditor general’s report noted the British Columbia provincial government has independently “reached an agreement with a major foreign accommodation sharing platform” to “voluntarily collect the provincial sales tax (PST) and remit it directly to the government.” Meanwhile, the Quebec National Assembly has passed its own legislation requiring foreign businesses to “register for, collect, and remit sales taxes,” regardless of whether they have a “permanent establishment” in Quebec or Canada.
As federal law currently stands, according to Ricard, the CRA lacks the “legislative authority or flexibility” to follow either British Columbia or Quebec’s example. And with the next federal election expected later this year, there may be little incentive for any of the major political parties to pursue the issue in the short-term.
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